Football: Defending the Title

Aug. 21, 2002

2001 was a breakthrough season for the Dolphins. In their first season as a member of the Pioneer Football League and just their fourth season overall, they captured PFL Southern Divison Championship, while recording a perfect mark in league play (3-0) and posting the program's first overall winning record (6-5). 2002 presents a whole different picture. JU is young, having graduated its first senior class of 25 last season, and must now defend its title as the top team in the PFL South.

Talented, But Inexperienced
The 2002 Dolphin squad is as talented as any of the four previous teams. The question is whether the level of talent will overcome the lack of experience and if JU can create the team chemistry that made the Dolphins so strong last season. "The key for us will be how quickly do the inexperienced players catch on," said head coach Steve Gilbert, who enters his fifth season at JU after starting the program from scratch in 1997. "Where does the leadership come from and how do we mesh together as a team?"

Defending The Title
For the first time in the short five-year history of the program, JU will no longer be considered the underdog. The Dolphins will be defending the PFL Southern Division title this year, a role that is certainly unfamiliar. "We are looking forward to the challenge of defending our title and being the targeted team," said Gilbert. "The players are excited about defending the championship and continuing the tradition the 25 seniors started last year." Gilbert has been thrilled by the level of intensity and work ethic the players have displayed since getting on the plane to leave Dayton last season following the PFL Championship game. "I love the enthusiasm of this group. I have never looked forward to a season so much. Even the coaching staff, which is by far the most experienced and hardest-working staff in our five years, is enthusiastic about the challenge."

For the first time in the history of the program, the Dolphins enter the season without four-year starter Gary Cooper, who holds nearly every JU passing record. JU also lost seniors Scott Brickley and Josh Hoekstra, leaving them without a quarterback who has any collegiate experience. Freshman Mike Sturgill (6-2, 195), who graduated high school early allowing him to participate in spring drills, is the favorite to start as a rookie. He has the strongest arm of any quarterback to play at JU and has instantly earned the respect of the upperclassmen with his work ethic and competitive nature. Sophomore Dom Giarardi (6-1, 190), who is an intelligent and efficient leader, will battle Sturgill for the starting role, while transfer Kyle Hicks (6-0, 160) can offer the Dolphins a different look because of his mobility.

Running Backs
JU graduated its top two running backs in school history, including All-American Brent Alexander, who ran for a school-record 1,089 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. But the cupboard is not empty. Junior Emmett Akins (132 att., 397 yds.), last year's second-leading rusher, is back, along with redshirt freshman Chad Davis (5-7, 151), perhaps the most exciting player JU has seen. Akins will be more effective after settling in as a sophomore, while Davis is dangerous in open space. Converted fullbacks Ricardo Harrison (5-10, 210) and Gil Jackson (5-10, 175) will battle for playing time, while freshman Steven Battle (6-0, 210) could have an immediate impact for the Dolphins.

Wide Receivers
JU has plenty of talent at the receiver position. Senior Jon Turner (22 rec., 531 yds.), a First-Team All-PFL selection, has developed into a dangerous big-play reciever who has the size and strength to also make possession plays. He averaged a school-record 24.1 yards per catch last year, including 206 in a single game against Lenoir-Rhyne. Junior Travis Lewis (5-7, 160) and senior Charles Harper (5-6, 145) are both small but effective players because they have great hands and can make plays in the open field. Also look for newcomers Pete Clifford (6-0, 180) and Julio Santiago (5-6, 160) to figure into the Dolphin offense.

Tight Ends
Perhaps the deepest and strongest position for JU is tight end. First-Team All-PFL selection Andrew Bianchi returns as the starter and will be counted on to be a team leader this season. His blocking was a key in the Dolphins rushing for a school-record 1,998 yards in 2001. Junior James Willman (6-3, 235) has improved his blocking and has excellent hands, while redshirt freshman Eldin Ferguson (6-1, 205) is considered the the team's best athlete and will find his way into the offensive game plan.

Offensive Line
JU is solid up front, but certainly not deep. Sports Network I-AA Mid-Major Preseason All-American Kevin Womble (6-2, 280) returns as the anchor at left tackle. He is joined by bookend Matt Meyer (6-5, 295), who improved dramatically during his first season on the field. Junior Chris Mills (6-4, 287) will move from guard to center, while senior Donald Mattis (6-0, 275) and junior Frank Santora (6-1, 255) will hold down the guard positions. The Dolphins have no reserves with any playing experience, but several newcomers will be counted on to contribute during the season.

Collective Defensive Effort
The Dolphin defense has been the one constant since defensive coordinator Shap Boyd's arrival three seasons ago. Boyd's philosophy of getting as many players to the ball as possible will be even more prevalent this season as JU tries to the fill the void left by the graduation all seven starters from the defensive line and linebacker corp. The 2002 Dolphins will be a smaller but quicker unit than in the past. "It's going to have to be a collective thing" said Boyd, whose 2001 defense ranked 27th in Division I-AA. "It will be important for us to get more people to the point of attack and pay careful attention to our pursuit angles."

Senior cornerback Linj Shell will be counted on to bolster the Dolphins' young defense.

Defensive Line
The big boys are gone from the defensive line and the newcomers will have to learn on the fly. Junior Paul Pierson (6-1, 255), who saw significant playing time as a sophomore, will be the anchor at the nose tackle position for the Dolphins. He had 26 tackles last season, including four behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Josh Tomlinson (6-2, 225) and redshirt freshman Matt Kappelman (6-2, 275) will have to follow Pierson's lead on the inside and play bigger than their size. On the outside, junior Derek Roberts (6-1, 230), who has played on a regular basis the past two seasons, and converted tight end Justin Knowles (6-1, 210), will give the Dolphins less size but more quickness. Look for newcomers Jason Bense (6-3, 225) and Peyton Keeling (6-1, 210) to see action right away as Boyd's system involves contant player rotation.

For JU's first four seasons, the one thing you could count on in the starting lineup was linebackers Dan Irby, Tommy Swindell and Pete Satur. The heart of the Dolphin defense will now change with a young, more athletic and quicker look. Senior Jeff Mama (5-9, 213) will anchor the middle and be expected to fill Swindell's role as the unit's leader. He has played in 21 games over the past two seasons and has recorded 42 tackles, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Tim Hasse (6-2, 200) will play on the strong side after playing in all 11 games as a true freshman, while sophomore Quincy Harp (5-9, 170) will man the weak side after playing on special teams in 2001. Similar to the defensive line, depth at linebacker will have to be developed as the season progresses, but will be a key in the Dolphins' ability to maintain one of the top defenses in the PFL.

The strength of the Dolphin defense lies in the secondary, despite the graduation of All-American and PFL Co-Defensive Player of the Year Tyrone Wright, who is JU's all-time leader with 12 career interceptions. Senior cornerbacks Linj Shell and Boshawn Mack, as well as senior strong safety Jeremy Kearson, are a big reason JU ranked 13th in Division I-AA last year in pass defense (151 yds./game). Shell, who was a First-Team All-PFL selection, picked off a team-best five passes, while breaking up 10 others and recording 44 tackles. Mack led the team and ranked third in the PFL with 12 pass breakups, while picking off three passes and making 34 stops. Kearson has been one of the team's top tacklers with 107 stops in the last two seasons. He also picked off two passes in 2001, including a school-record 81-yard interception return for a touchdown. The big question in the secondary will be filling Wright's hole at free safety. Junior Emile Duvernois (5-11, 167) has played sparingly in reserve, but will have to prove he can play in a man-to-man situation or the Dolphins will be forced to play more zone.

Special Teams
Special teams was a positive for the Dolphins last season, but there are some holes with the loss of place kicker Chris Brown (26-30 PAT, 10-13 FGA) and punt returner Brett Palmi, who is JU's all-time leader with 110 returns for 1,065 yards. Mack and Santiago have the talent and speed to fill the void but lack Palmi's experience. Newcomers Chris Schmidt and Troy Frank will be counted on to handle the kicking immediately. Kickoff return is solid with the return of Shell, who was second on the team last year with a 23.2 yard-per-return average en route to Honorable-Mention All-PFL honors. Senior punter Brett Keener has improved in each of his three seasons at JU, including a career-best 38.6 yard average as a junior.